A reply on repentance

by Mary Healy

I would like to thank David Bradshaw for his thoughtful criticisms of my article on corporate repentance, and especially for the Orthodox perspective he brings to the discussion, which helps me to further nuance and support my claims.

Mr. Bradshaw rightly points out that repentance (metanoia, change of mind) is more than a matter of expressing regret or sorrow for sin. It also includes as one of its essential components a turning away from sin toward God—something which demands much more humility and self-denial. I heartily agree. But this act of turning and casting oneself on God’s mercy, while it is primordially personal, nevertheless can and should have a corporate dimension just as sin has a corporate dimension.

Jesus himself spoke in terms of this social aspect of sin when he said, “an evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign” and “the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, will be required of this generation.” John the Baptist’s ministry was to initiate repentance on both an individual and a national level, to “turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

This act of turning is precisely what characterized the prayers of Daniel and Nehemiah. They might be called prayers of intercessory repentance: a spokesman acknowledges the people’s sin (including his own part in it, however small), expresses a resolve (both his own and the people’s) to turn away from sin, and implores God’s mercy. One of the most potent aspects of such prayer is its ability to shed light on one’s own hidden complicity in the sinful attitudes that give rise to the sin itself. For instance, if I fervently pray in intercessory repentance for the sin of contraception, even if I have never committed that sin, I might begin to recognize my own devaluing of human life, self-centered attitudes toward sexuality, disrespect for God’s order, etc. But even more, any sins at all which I have committed have contributed (in however minute a way) to the societal situation in which such a sin is possible. My failure to love has affected others, who have affected others in turn, in a ripple effect which gets continuously broader as it gets less intense. Repentance and divine forgiveness reverse the ripple.*

The ramifications of solidarity are felt even in natural human relations: insofar as an individual identifies himself with a group, he takes on in a certain way both the collective merits and the collective culpabilities of that group. Otherwise there is no way to make sense of such things as the “national apologies” which Japan and Germany have recently made for the crimes of World War II—crimes committed by the parents and grandparents of the present generation. All the more do those in the Church, who are incorporated into her through a living spiritual union, inherit both the merits and sins of their elders in the faith.

Must the corporate repentance the Pope is calling for be completely unanimous in order to be valid? Surely the obstinacy of some does not annul the good act of the rest—if anything, the reverse is true (recall Abraham’s plea with God to spare Sodom for the sake of a few righteous men). In a Church of 1 billion-plus members it is unlikely that we will ever see anything like unanimity on earth. The Church will always contain saints and sinners and a large crowd in between. Yet the spiritual unity of the Church allows the actions of a part to affect the whole.

Regarding the vital issue of unity between the Church of East and West: it may be true, as Mr. Bradshaw maintained, that past atrocities have little bearing on the estrangement of the present (although they may have more than he realizes—historical memory can be both subtle and powerful). But even if they had caused no estrangement at all, there would still be a need to corporately repent for them, to do what our ancestors could or would not do: consciously acknowledge the evil for what it was, be sorry for it, turn away from it, resolve never to repeat it. Apart from this the evil perpetrated remains in a certain way “at large” in the world. Visible acts of reform are, of course, desperately needed as well. But any corporate reforms without the interior change of heart and horror of sin that corporate repentance brings would be a mere face-lift.

More importantly, granted that all the problems Mr. Bradshaw mentions—and many more—are present in the Catholic Church, why should we not want to tackle these problems together? Faithful Catholics can empathize wholeheartedly with his consternation over the scandalous problems in the Church. As he is aware, one could just as easily list grave problems present in the Orthodox churches: lack of doctrinal and ecclesial unity, secularism (especially in the Orthodox communities of the West), inadequate formation of the clergy (especially in the East), inability to adapt to circumstances, to name a few. When has the Church not had to deal with problems of one kind or another? They do not lessen that fact that the Church is the body of Christ and that our unity is directly willed by him.

The answer, then, is not to entrench ourselves against one another but to come closer together in humility and cooperation, seeking to benefit from each other’s strengths in renewing the Church.

Mary Healy, MA class of ‘89

  1. I am indebted for some of these insights to Dr. John Crosby, who explores this theme from a philosophical perspective in his article, “Max Scheler’s Principle of Moral and Religious Solidarity,” forthcoming in Communio. ↑